For the second time in four months, Bellator MMA and the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts will co-promote a show in Ireland. Having previously visited the Republic’s 3Arena in Dublin, the cross-Atlantic partners will set up shop with Bellator 173 and BAMMA 28 on Friday at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The first Bellator-BAMMA event in December was an all-around success. The fights were enjoyable, fans came out in force and Ireland continued to establish its place as the premier destination for mixed martial arts in Europe. Still, it wasn’t all positive.
Leaving aside the fact that Bellator still only has access to heavily delayed and abbreviated television coverage in the United Kingdom and Ireland, there was something simpler amiss. It came in the shape of disappointment about where Irish fighters were placed on the card at Bellator 169. Muhammed Lawal and Satoshi Ishii may have name value to most MMA observers around the globe, but to Irish fans, a large percentage of whom only discovered the sport when Conor McGregor asked UFC President Dana White for “60Gs, baby,” it was a main event with no intrigue or meaning.
This was also an issue when BAMMA visited the country and elected not to feature an Irishman in a headlining slot. Despite a high-class showdown between Tom Duquesnoy and Brendan Loughnane topping the card at BAMMA 22 on Sept. 19, 2015, many of the 4,800 who had bought a ticket headed for the exits before the French prospect took a controversial decision over Loughnane to retain his featherweight championship.
Thankfully, those wrongs have been righted at Bellator 173 and BAMMA 28. The two events feature plenty of local talent; and even though Chris Fields was forced to withdraw from the Bellator main event against Liam McGeary because of injury, SBG Ireland’s James Gallagher will be showcased in the co-headliner.
Hailing from Strabane on the north side of Ireland, the 20-year-old Gallagher has been on the prospect radar for years. Now slated to face Kirill Medvedovski in a bout that was originally scheduled to take place last year in Israel, the John Kavanagh protégé will get his chance to impress local fans in his third Bellator appearance. Gallagher has lifted his stock with smooth jiu-jitsu -- four of his five wins have resulted in chokes -- and improving standup, as he has compiled a perfect 5-0 record. A McGregor stablemate, he has trained under Kavanagh since he was in his early teens. That continuity has led to obvious growth as a fighter and allowed him to draw upon the SBG fanbase.
Much like McGregor, Gallagher has proven to be a braggadocios entertainer who goes head-to-head with opponents in the trash-talking arena and predicts the round in which he will finish them. If the last few years have shown anything, it’s that Irish fans have a love and appreciation for such efforts. That Gallagher appears to be getting a push from Bellator as a top attraction will only raise his profile further.
As for BAMMA, Gallagher’s former stomping grounds, it will shine the spotlight on two of the island’s best lightweights, as Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans Norman Parke and Paul Redmond square off for the vacant title at 155 pounds. In terms of style and quality, it’s undoubtedly one of the best matchups you could hope to see in Ireland. Plus, it signals a progression in the country’s mentality towards the sport. A few years ago, the best Irish fighters might have stayed away from each other, as there was a thought that it was better to prove yourself without taking away from your fellow countrymen. Most top organizations now promote events in Ireland, which has led to more competition and better shows.
Add all this to the presence of local favorites like Rhys McKee, Andy Young and Decky Dalton on the BAMMA 28 lineup and Sinead Kavanagh on the Bellator roster and you have a true delight for hardcore locals. On paper, the gloriously nicknamed “BAMMATOR” card is one of the best mixed martial arts events ever held in Ireland. It puts on display the newest prospects and seasoned veterans. Most importantly, it has a strong Irish flavor at the top.